By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Gospel lesson: Luke 3:15-18, 21-22
The first year Britt and I were in ministry, we came across an article advertising a religious product: "The Bapto Robe." Now, if you've been a Methodist all your life, this will need a little explaining. If you have a Baptist background – or come from another denomination which baptizes by immersion – it will make more sense. In those denominations, when an individual is baptized, they are immersed completely under the water. Sometimes this occurs in a lake or a stream. More often nowadays, it occurs indoors in the church's baptistery – a see-through tank of water designed specifically for baptism by immersion.
So, back to the Bapto Robe. Its advertisement lauded the following attributes: it was water-proof, fire-proof and disposable. Let me repeat that: water-proof, fire-proof and disposal. Now, I'm the first person to admit to a little vanity when it comes to my hair and makeup. And, I imagine such a product could have appeal for that reason. But, consider the irony. First of all, baptism – in any denomination – can only be accomplished with WATER. Second, fire and water are common symbols for the Holy Spirit throughout scripture. In this morning’s scripture, John says of his ministry, “I baptize you with water,” but elevates Jesus’ work by saying, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Furthermore, since baptism is always tied to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the recipient… well, therein lays the irony of the Bapto Robe's guarantee to be both water-proof and fire-proof. (This Bapto Robe sounds more like a strategy to hold the Spirit at bay.) Finally, there's the Bapto Robe's assurance that it is a disposal garment. Once again, I imagine its inventors saw this as a plus in the hygiene department. But, from early scripture and church tradition, an image for baptism was that of putting on a new garment – being "clothed with righteousness." And, one would hardly want to cast off righteousness like a disposable paper hospital gown or, in this case, a disposable Bapto Robe. The paradox of The Bapto Robe lay in its apparent claim that, by wearing this garment, one need not suffer the "effects" of baptism. One could go under the water sealed in one's water-proof, fire-proof "suit" and re-surface as if nothing had happened at all. Now, that's hardly the effect the church – regardless of denomination – is going for.
And, it’s a far cry from what the scriptures and early church tradition teach about baptism. The word itself – baptism – comes from a Greek word whose root meaning is "death by drowning." The very word baptism communicates the idea that, through the act of baptism, one is not only "effected," but even "put to death" in a certain sense. In the early church, all baptisms were baptism by immersion for this symbolic purpose. Remember that water in the ancient world – long before the days of submarines or deep sea diving – was mysterious, chaotic and threatening. So, as one went under the water, it was a symbolic death, as if one were being buried in this deep, watery grave. And the death that baptism celebrated was a death to our sinful and selfish natures; those parts of ourselves that look out for number one and claw to get to the top – those parts of ourselves that fearfully and selfishly grasp at what we desire. It was that selfish human nature that was, symbolically, drowned to death as one went under the water. And, as one resurfaced, it symbolized a resurrection of sorts – a newness of life – for now, through the action of baptism, the Spirit of the risen Christ found a residence, so to speak, within the newly baptized person. The apostle Paul described it like this: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.[i]” So, the actions and attitudes of those who were baptized were to reflect the actions and attitudes of Christ – actions and attitudes of humility and service. One who was baptized no longer lived for one's own self-interests, but now lived, primarily, for God’s purposes and priorities.
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Although there are some slight variations, our gospels are all in agreement that the baptism of Jesus was a revelatory experience. Jesus’ baptism revealed his identity as God’s beloved son; one who brought pleasure to the heavenly Father. Now, Matthew, Mark and Luke also agree that Jesus’ baptism was followed immediately by his temptation in the wilderness. Those accounts have some variation, but here’s what all those accounts and all those temptations share in common: they all boil down, most simply, to this: the devil tries to coerce Jesus into acting in his own, personal self-interest. But consistently, resolutely, Jesus chooses to pursue his heavenly Father’s interests instead.
Now, within the church, Baptism of our Lord Sunday is a day when we not only remember the baptism of Jesus. It is also a day when we remember our own baptisms. For in baptism, we too are named as God’s beloved sons and daughters who bring pleasure to the heavenly Father. Now there is nothing magical about baptism; it doesn’t function like some incantation that makes us impervious to all temptation. In fact, we will – throughout our lives – face temptation; and by that I don’t mean little things like decadent dessert or skipping a day at the gym. No; I’m talking about true biblical temptation, the kind that Jesus faced in the wilderness: life situations when we too are tempted to act in our own personal self-interest; those times when we are tempted to pursue our own purposes rather than the purposes of our heavenly Father. In other words, we choose our way instead of choosing God’s way.
But, while baptism isn’t magic and doesn’t give us a pass on all of life’s temptations, it is for us – just as it was for Jesus – a revelation of our identity. To the question “Who are you?” baptism provides the answer: We too, like Jesus, are the beloved sons and daughters of God. At baptism we, like Jesus, are affirmed as God’s beloved children and filled with the same Holy Spirit that inspired the work of Jesus.
Let me tell you, in the gospel of Luke, a summary of the sequence of events that inaugurate the ministry of Jesus.
So you see, not only does baptism answer the question, “Who are you?” with the assurance that we are God’s children; it fills us with the Holy Spirit who accompanies us all along life’s journey – even through the temptations and the trials – and that same Holy Spirit fills us and equips us for the work of ministry; a ministry that reflects the actions and attitudes of Jesus – actions and attitudes of humility and service; actions and attitudes that reveal the purposes and priorities of God. People are drawn to Jesus when they see Jesus in us. Friends, if you don’t remember anything else I say this morning, hang on to this next sentence, OK? Here it is: If we are going to offer Jesus to the world it will need to be through our actions and attitudes and not just religious talk or instruction – actions and attitudes of humility and service; actions and attitudes that reveal the purposes and priorities of God.
This morning we will reaffirm our baptism vows. Each time we reaffirm our baptism, we remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are. We celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit within us. And we acknowledge that, as God’s beloved children filled with his Spirit, we – like Jesus – have been called into ministry. Baptism lays the groundwork for our ministry.
And that’s also why today is such an appropriate day to install and bless our church leaders for this new year because this morning, when your name is read and you stand in the midst of your brothers and sisters, we’ll all together acknowledge that you’re doing more than filling a slot on a committee and showing up at meetings to vote yea or nay. You’re living out your baptism. Baptism answers the question of who we are and whose we are and reminds us that we belong to God, along with all our talents and skills, our time, our money, and even our relationships. You didn’t just answer the call of a member on the Nominations Committee who phoned to ask if you’d serve on Staff Parish or Finance or whatever. You also answered the call of God. Friends, we live in a world where lots of people pursue their own interests, their own desires, their own advancement. But if we are God’s beloved children, we look after the interests of God; we pursue the purposes of God. In the act of baptism, we are inviting God to drown to death those parts of us that are sinful and selfish and self-aggrandizing and to raise us up to a new life that mirrors the actions and attitudes of Jesus, actions and attitudes of humility and service.
Brothers and sisters, serving the church isn’t simply about what we like to do and what fits conveniently into our schedule. Serving in church leadership, my friends, is about living out our baptism; a baptism that names us as God’s children, fills us with God’s Spirit, and sends us out to do God’s work. So, let’s get ‘er done in 2016. Amen.
[i] Romans 6:5, New Revised Standard Version
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